The ancient song of the People of God that we just listened to, used to resound against the backdrop of the Jerusalem temple. To be able to understand the leitmotif of this hymn clearly, it is necessary to keep in mind three of its fundamental assumptions. The first concerns the truth of creation: God created the world and is its Lord. The second refers to the judgment to which he subjects his creatures: We must be summoned before him and be questioned about what we have achieved. The third is the mystery of God's coming: He comes into the cosmos and into history; and he wants to have free access in order to establish a relationship of profound communion with men. As a modern commentator has written: “These are three elementary forms of the experience of God and of the relationship with God: We live by the power of God, we live before God, and we can live with God” (Gerhard Ebeling, Sui Salmi, Brescia 1973, p. 97).
To these three assumptions correspond the three parts of Psalm 24, which we will now try to explore in greater depth, considering them as three panels of a poetic and prayerful triptych.
The First Picture is a kind of profession of faith in the Lord of the universe and of history. Creation, according to the ancientsí worldview, is conceived as an architectural construction: God lays the earth's foundation on the sea—the symbol of the destructive waters of the void—as a sign of the limitations of creatures, who are conditioned by nothingness and evil. Created reality is suspended over this abyss and it is the creative and providential work of God to preserve it in existence and in life.
The Second Picture
Moving from the cosmic panorama, the perspective of the psalmist narrows down to the microcosm of Zion, “the mountain of the Lord.” We are now in the second picture of the psalm (verses 3–6). We are in front of the Jerusalem Temple. The procession of the faithful asks the guards of the holy door a question about entering: “Who may go up the mountain of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place?” The priests—as is the case in other biblical texts that scholars call an “entrance liturgy” (see Psalm 15; Isaiah 33:14–16; Micah 6:6–8)—respond by listing the conditions for gaining access to communion with the Lord in worship. The conditions are not merely ritualistic and external norms to be followed, but about moral and existential commitments to be put into practice. It is almost like a conscience examen or a penitential rite that precedes the celebration of the liturgy.
The priests put forward three requirements. First, it is necessary to have “clean hands and a pure heart.” Hands and heart signify action and intention—that is, man's entire being which must be radically turned toward God and his law. The second requirement is “to not utter lies,” which, in biblical language, not only refers to sincerity but above all to the struggle against idolatry, since idols are false gods—that is, “lies.” Thus, purity of religion and worship, the first of the Ten Commandments, is reaffirmed. Finally, the third condition—“have not sworn falsely”—concerns relations with one's neighbor. As we know, in an oral civilization like ancient Israel's, the word had to be not an instrument of deceit, but on the contrary, a symbol of social relations inspired by justice and integrity.
We must be summoned before God and be questioned about what we have achieved.
The Third Picture
So, we reach the third picture, which indirectly describes the festive entry of the faithful into the Temple to meet the Lord (verses 7– 10). An evocative play of appeals, questions and answers presents God's progressive self–revelation through three of his solemn titles: “King of glory, strong and mighty Lord, Lord of the armies.” Zion's Temple doors are personified and invited to raise their lintels to welcome the Lord who is taking possession of his house.
The triumphal scene described by the psalm in this third poetic picture has been used by the Christian liturgy of the East and of the West to recall both the victorious descent of Christ into hell, of which the first letter of Peter speaks (see 3:19), and the glorious ascension of the risen Lord to heaven (see Acts 1:9–10). The same psalm is still sung by alternating choirs in the Byzantine liturgy of the Easter vigil, just as it used to be chanted in the Roman liturgy at the end of the procession of palms on Passion Sunday. The solemn liturgy of the opening of the Holy Door during the inauguration of the Jubilee Year allowed us to feel with intense internal emotion the same sentiments experienced by the psalmist when he crossed the threshold of the ancient Temple of Zion.
The last title, “Lord of the armies,” does not have—as might appear at first sight—a military connotation, though it does not exclude a reference to Israel's armies. It bears, rather, a cosmic meaning: The Lord who is about to encounter humanity within the restricted space of the sanctuary of Zion, is the Creator who has all the stars of heaven for an army—that is, all the creatures of the universe who obey him. In the book of the prophet Baruch, we read that, before God “the stars at their posts shine and rejoice. When he calls them, they answer, ëHere we are!í shining with joy for their Maker” (Baruch 3:34–35). The infinite God, all–powerful and eternal, adapts himself to his human creatures, comes near to them to meet them, listen to them and to enter into communion with them. The liturgy is the expression of this encounter in faith, conversation and love.
[Translation by Zenit and Register]